The longships in scaldic verse

Viking-Age scaldic verses are poems that were composed to be recited at the royal courts in Scandinavia. They arose as a part of an oral tradition.

They were first written down in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and they have been handed down in transcripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, first and foremost in the Icelandic sagas.

Since the verses were composed according to strict metrical rules, it is assumed that they may well have survived in more or less their original form from the time of their composition until they were written down on parchment. It is quite obvious, however, that they were subject to editing once they exchanged the spoken word as a medium to become written texts. The scaldic verses often describe voyages, sea-battles and other events that are associated with the longships and they are therefore a valuable source of information about these. There are several scholars who have done research into what the verses tell about maritime conditions. The most recent and most comprehensive work is Judith Jesch’s Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse (Routledge 2001). What is written below is based on her results.

The surviving scaldic verse from the Viking Age is quite extensive. Jesch identifies 967 stanzas or half-stanzas that can be dated with reasonable certainty to the period 950-1110. Since Iceland was closely linked with Norway in the Viking Age and the early medieval period, the surviving verses are largely composed to and about the Norwegian kings and jarls. It is certain that scalds often performed at the Danish and Swedish courts but in the surviving verses it is first and foremost Norwegian conditions that are described.

Scaldic verses are far from being realistic descriptions of real events and conditions. The scaldic verses are an art form in which the tributes to the prince consisted not only in praise of his achievements but also in the elegance employed in the expression of the poem and the exploitation of its rules. The scaldic verses consist for a large part of fixed formulae and poetical circumlocutions or kennings whose use made it possible to create a varied poetry in spite of the strict rules for the structure of the stanzas and the rhymes. This meant that the poems do not give a precise description of the particular event described but often contain a multitude of different terms for the individual concepts – and that is the way in which they can be a valuable source of information, for example about contemporary longships.

Skip ‘ship’ is the most general term for a vessel but not the one most frequently employed in the scaldic verses. Skipcan denote both a warship and a cargo-ship and it also occurs in compounds such as herskip ‘warship’ and kaupskip‘merchant ship’. There are also a few instances of the term langskip ‘a long ship’ or other compounds with lang-, e.g. the kenning langr sæmeiðr ‘the long sea-tree’. It is, however, by no means certain that the reference is to a large warship in the sense that we now attribute to the term ‘longship’.

Skeið occurs in at least 49 stanzas and it is the most frequently occurring ship-term. Only two of the occurrences are in connection with peaceable activities, the others are all military. Skeiðar are described in various contexts as long or narrow, with a form of armour-plating, perhaps shields, with oar-holes, and as loaded with armed men. A skeið is thus clearly a warship. It is uncertain, on the other hand, whether 0r not it denotes a particular type of warship.

Snekkja occurs in eight stanzas, seven of them from the middle of the eleventh century. In several cases the term occurs together with skeiðar and this emphasises that there is talk of two types of vessels. In one case a snekkja is described as having 30 pairs of oars, while in another case a snekkja is smaller than a skeið.

Dreki ‘drake’ only occurs in seven stanzas and in one case it is used of a ship that is described in the same poem as a skeið, a large vessel with 70 oars that belonged to Harald Hardrada. This is probably not a matter of a ship-term proper but a kenning of the same type as ormr and naðr, both of which words are also employed of vessels and mean ‘serpent’. Behind the kenning dreki we should probably see a large warship, in the same way as the kenning ormr is used of the largest of the longships mentioned in the scaldic verses, Olav Tryggvason’s ORMR INN LANGI. 

There is little that the verses can tell us about the materials from which the warship were constructed but it is a striking fact that eik ‘oak’ is often used in a positive description of a ship. Fura ‘pine’, on the other hand is rarely mentioned. This is striking when we take into consideration the orientation of the scaldic verses towards Norway. The oak only grew in a limited area in the southern part of that country, while pine was the dominant timber for shipbuilding further north. It is obvious – although not surprising – that the scalds were well-informed as to the difference in quality between the two types of wood. It is also interesting that askr ‘ash’, which generally occurs in English and Irish sources referring to Danish ships and warriors and whose use is archaeologically documented in Skuldelev, is not mentioned as a material for shipbuilding in saga literature.There are many words which denote parts of ships, e.g. borð ‘plank’ or skarar ‘scarfs’. Most of the terms employed are trivial and not specific to the longships. A few of the references, however, are important sources of information for our understanding of what Viking-Age longships looked like and how they were used. A skjaldrím ‘shield-rim’ is referred to twice and in this way supplements the sparse archaeological material that shows us how the shields were placed along the gunwale. There are also two occurrences of the term hlýða ‘wash strake’, which was a loose addition to the gunwale that could make the ship more seaworthy but about which we have no archaeological information. In one description of the sea-battle at Svold it is said that the warriors fell over þoptur ‘the thwarts’, when they were retreating through the ship. This is the only reference to thwarts in the scaldic verses but it confirms the archaeological observation that the longships, in contrast to the older ships from Oseberg and Gokstad, had fixed thwarts in the form of cross-beams on which to sit. The scaldic verses also give us more examples of the ships’ being “beautifully painted” (steini fagrdrífin).

Particularly informative is the fact that several of the descriptive adjectives that are employed about the longships – in a positive sense – refer to their flexibility: mjór and , both of which words can be translated as ‘lissom’, or kløkkrand þíðr ‘flexible’. This fits well with the references to the great warships as serpents and dragons. The word barð, which we find once on a rune stone, presumably used as a term for a warship, occurs in scaldic verse as a part of the stem of a ship, and is used as the name of Erik Jarl’s ship.

The rigging is one of the areas that is most poorly illuminated by the archaeological material – but unfortunately scaldic verse gives only a very little concrete information about this. One late, anonymous verse refers to a ship belonging to the Norwegian king Magnús Barefoot (1093-1103) that has a mast of no less the 70 feet – about 21 metres – which can be compared with the Skulelev 2 reconstruction, THE SEA STALLION’s mast-length of 15 metres. The top of the mast, like the stem, was a part of the ship to which particular attention was paid in literature. It was denoted by the word húnn, which can also have the meaning ‘gaming piece’ – presumably a reference to its dice-like form. A leader might be one who ‘binds the mast-top correctly’ bindr hún beinan, and he could be ‘the one who sends the fire of the mast-top. This last example indicates that the mast-top could be gilded. A reference to the sail’s making a noise by flapping against the stay, rýndu við stag, is one of several that show that the stay was used to secure the mast. Another reference shows that the sails were equipped with ropes, rif, so that their size could be diminished.

Descriptions of actual navigation are frequent in the scaldic verses but never detailed. Oars and rowing are described, with the stress laid on the imposing aspect of the strokes of the oars. The strokes of the oars in Harald Hardrada’s great ship were compared with the beating of the wings of an eagle: es sem líti innan arnar væng. Rowing for a long period or in bad weather is accounted an exploit and the same applied to sailing in a storm – a fact which perhaps also reveals that neither of these practices was normal when on board ship. To sail close to the wind, beita, or with reefed sails, vefja, is also considered to be specially demanding.

In the cases where shields are mentioned on the ships – as ‘armouring’ – they lie still or the reference is allegorical. The scaldic verses do not therefore contradict the practical observation from the archaeological finds that the shields cannot have been mounted during rowing, and hardly during sailing, either.

A few examples reveal that the warships could be pulled up on land. For example, Knut the Great, who in England renndi langskipum útan at eyra grunni ‘allowed his ships to run aground on gravel and sand’.

Perhaps because they were composed in honour of princes, the scaldic verses hardly ever mention anything about the organisation on board the ship or of the fleet as such, except that the prince’s role is naturally always emphasised. In the scaldic verses the crew of a ship can be called skipun, sogn or sókn. The first of these words corresponds to the use of skiparar on the rune stones. Sogn is just a ‘collection of human-beings’, while sókn is a ‘seeking’ and can also mean a battle or an attack – that is a gathering of people who are going to do something in company with each other. The term lið denotes a troop of warriors and hence also the warriors on board a longship, but it can also denote a fleet of warships. Large groups of warships are referred to as flotar ‘fleets’ but a floti can also denote all the men in a fleet. The word leiðangr occurs five times in the scaldic verses and seems on all five occasions to denote a fleet, and not any underlying organisational system.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen

The historical sources